No. And you likely couldn’t either. Sit down, kids. It’s time for a science lesson.
Henrietta Lacks was born on August 1, 1920. She died at the age of 31. She became unwell, so she went to the only hospital in her area that would see African-American patients, Johns Hopkins. Henrietta was first misdiagnosed and later it was discovered she had cervical cancer.
While she was seeking treatment, her doctors removed two cell samples from her cervix, one cancerous, one healthy. The cancerous cells eventually became known as HeLa Cells. You see, Henrietta’s cells had unique properties, they replicated at an extremely high rate and they had a longer than average shelf life, allowing clinical researchers to study her cells for longer lengths of time.
Over the years, HeLa cells were used to develop the polio vaccine, numerous cancer trials have used HeLa cells, her cells have been used in AIDS research, testing the long term effects of radiation on human cells, cellular reactions to tape, glue, cosmetics, you name it. Her cells have even been to space. You guys, without Henrietta Lacks medicine may not be what it is today. There are over 11,000 patents on her cells and they are in high demand by research facilities around the world.
All of this is great, right? Well, depends on who you are. If you are the doctor who took the cells without her consent, discovered they were awesome, and sold them for literal millions, then it’s pretty great. Or maybe you’re the white woman who got paid to pretend she was the origin of HeLa cells because heaven forbid anyone know they came from a black woman, then, yeah, I guess it’s pretty great. If you are the Lacks family, living in poverty, unaware that your wife and mother’s cells are literally changing the world, it probably isn’t so great. It wasn’t until 1975, that’s 24 years after Henrietta’s death, that the family accidentally became aware that Henrietta’s cells were being used for research. No one ever officially told them about Henrietta’s cells, they just continued selling them and gaining notoriety. Meanwhile, one of Henrietta’s children was living on the street.
Here’s the thing, harvesting cells without permission was common practice. Particularly if the doctor thought the patient would not be able to pay. Like, I’ll treat you, but I’m also going to take whatever I want as form of payment. This was not uncommon at all. I just think, ethically and morally, you should throw some recognition – and some cash – her family’s way. Recognition finally came…in 1996 when the Morehouse College of Medicine held a women in medicine conference. It wasn’t until October of 2018 that Johns Hopkins announced they had plans to name a wing after Henrietta Lacks. Better late than never, I guess.
Henrietta Lacks changed the world of science and medicine forever. For that, I am grateful for her. I also think it’d be dope if more people knew who the hell she was. So, next time you put on makeup or tape something to something else, or glue a broken vase back together, take a moment to thank Henrietta. Without her, who knows? We may all be polio-infested idiots with natural lashes who had no way to attach things to other things.
If you’re interested in more Henrietta Lacks knowledge, and you should be, check out The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, it is a fascinating read. Or check out the movie adaptation starring out lady Oprah.